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Health care delays worry local veteran

KINGMAN - Louis Russo is concerned that a lack of Veterans Affairs doctors and a change in the way the VA is handling pain medications is threatening the lives of local veterans.

Russo, a Korean War veteran, has been fighting to get his prescription pain medication refilled for more than a month. Russo takes the medication for the constant pain in his shoulders, knees, ankles and disabled right hand.

"The medication is just enough to take the edge off the pain and that's all I need. The pain's still there, it's just not as bad," he said. "I makes it where I can actually do something."

"This isn't really about me. I'm lucky. I'm not in as bad a shape as some of those guys out there. There are veterans out there who could die if they don't have their medications."

Ame Callahan, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Prescott, said the department sent out a notice to all registered veterans in its Health Trends newsletter earlier this year saying the department would start re-evaluating all veterans on narcotic pain medications in March.

"We're trying to convert veterans from short-acting medications to long acting medications. That way they don't have to take so many pills each day," she said.

According to the newsletter, short-term narcotics are less effective on pain because patients have to keep taking them in order to get relief. This can lead to a tolerance for the drug, which then requires the patient to take more, which can lead to addiction.

If a veteran runs out of pain medication while waiting to be re-evaluated, the VA will send them a 30-day supply, Callahan said, but if they go through that supply before the end of the 30 days they're going to have to either wait to see a doctor or work with their primary care team to get another prescription.

In mid-May Russo's prescription ran out, so he called for a refill.

"I had to call the VA two or three times that week to get the prescription filled," he said, a 30-day supply.

Then, because of the limited mobility in this right hand, Russo used a pair of pliers to get the childproof cap off the bottle - and when the bottle popped open, he lost half of the pills down the kitchen drain.

"I called to ask for another prescription but they said I couldn't get more until I saw a doctor. When I asked when I could see the doctor, they said they were shorthanded and would fit me in as soon as they could," he said.

At the same time as the VA was re-evaluating pain patients, the doctor at the Kingman VA clinic retired, Callahan said.

"We've had doctors filling in by using our telemedicine program or driving up from Prescott to see veterans," she said. "We're working very hard on the situation."

Since Russo ran out of pills, he's been taking a handful of Tylenol each day for the pain while continuing to call the VA.

Russo said a VA patient advocate did get back to him Friday afternoon after he left three messages that day with the office. The advocate told him someone would call him Monday. Russo received a call from a nurse around 3:30 p.m. Monday.


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